Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Runtime: 117 Minutes
What a twist: after numerous critical failures at tackling larger scale studio pictures, the M. Night Shyamalan that first captivated the world has finally found his feet again on the same grounds as his earlier, more intimate genre explorations. Here delivering a firm, cerebral and twisted thriller that’s the best work he’s made in well over a decade.
The typical trope of the psychopath with a personality disorder has been used to great effect in the genre before, and here Shyamalan uses it as a means of keeping the audience on their toes in terms of allegiance. There’s a conspiracy at work behind this kidnapping of the three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), as they are being held by multiple captors in the guise of one man (James McAvoy) with a sinister groupthink that has distorted their understanding. The power balance is playfully strong and can turn the tone on a dime from darkly comical to stressed and unnerving in a single moment.
There is a discussion to be had concerning the presentation of DID (dissociative identity disorder) in the film's context, and whether or not it bodes well for the perceptions of the disorder overall. But it’s really being used as a general platform for the storytelling, as well as the films absurdly entreating conceit that the human mind can alter body chemistry with every change.
James McAvoy delivers not one, but several excellent performances as the disturbed host to these identities, Kevin. It’s the kind of role that many actors would kill for, and McAvoy pushes his abilities and charismatic edge into whole new boundaries as a collection of unique and disturbing characters – ranging from a 9-year-old boy, a saintly mother figure, and a flamboyant fashion designer – and is having the time of his life doing so. Anya Taylor-Joy has had a run of really decent performances after her breakout role in The Witch last year, and as Casey she’s no different, carrying a sturdy, composed edge to her damaged character in a brilliantly downplayed manner that feels genuinely real and fearful.
Berry Buckley makes the most out of her psychologist, Dr Karen Fletcher. She’s saddled with most of the films clunky and unevenly handled exposition, yet still feels like someone who desperately wants to help find the dwindling humanity in her patient. While the other two young girls are portrayed rather well, they do very little in general and are sidelined before the halfway mark.
The filmmaking here is so much more focused than before, with some beautiful, lingering camera work from Mike Gioulakis that makes the most of the limited set locations. There’s a restraint to the presentation of both the violence and the staging of scenes. Even though the first act is choppy in structure, it settles into a natural groove until launching into a pretty intense climax.
The real problems come from Shyamalan’s screenplay, which at times careens back into his now set mould of overly quirky affectations, nonsensical detours and manipulative story elements. The chief one being a series of flashbacks into the life of the troubled lead teen, Casey, exploring her troublesome and abusing upbringing. It makes sense thematically come the final act, but the tone and attitude of its presentation and function feel forced and unnecessary. Also, there’s a troubling fetishism for stripping the young girls slowly of their clothing that feels like more than a mere means of exploiting their vulnerability.
The thing that most people will be discussing though is the final scene; more than just a twist, it’s a daring, out of left field reveal to the audience that reshapes the film you thought you were watching, and will shake the foundations of many audience members in one of the most gleefully surprising narrative developments of the year. Even if Split is not amongst his best early work, this is easily Shyamalan’s best movie since Signs, and an immensely enjoyable one as well.